“The very first issue of reentry is the effect of travel on the physical nature of your missionary friend. But jet lag is just the beginning. Change of climate, change of elevation, change of season, change of diet, change of pace—change!” Neal Pirolo, The Reentry Team: Caring For Your Returning Missionaries.
Driving is something I tried to avoid for at least a day or two after returning from our host country in the South Pacific. Travel time, plus crossing time zones and hemispheres, wreaked havoc on my mind and body. Once, after a long journey home, I broke my own rule and ventured out to the grocery store (pre-grocery delivery days). I was surprised to see flashing lights in my rearview mirror. My neighborhood law enforcement officer was quite incredulous at my behavior, “Seriously, you didn’t see the stop sign?” I had rolled right through it, oblivious to the big red octagon, and his police car, sitting at the intersection. Thankfully, I got a stern reprimand instead of a ticket. It was a good reminder of the physical dangers associated with reentry.
Anyone who has experienced reentry knows about the foggy brain, disrupted sleep, digestive issues, and the general feeling of disorientation that comes with flying across time zones. Fatigue and mood swings are common during that uncomfortable phase of adjustment. The general rule of thumb is that it takes one day for each time zone crossed to adjust to a new environment.
For the global worker, the physical toll of this transition is coupled with the reverse culture shock of reentry. In addition, they may be returning with a weakened immune system, making them more likely to fall ill. Even the most seasoned worker may be asking themselves, “Where am I and what am I doing here?”
Addressing the physical effects of reentry on global workers is one of the most overlooked areas of care. In fact, when I was researching for this article, I could find very little that focused on it.
"Addressing the physical effects of reentry on global workers is one of the most overlooked areas of care."
Everything seemed to be centered on the responsibility of the worker for their own care, which is understandable. But what about the responsibility of those of us in the ministry of care? Should this be an area where local church should engage more fully with the struggles of their sent and supported workers?
Meeting Physical Needs
Biblical principles indicate a resounding yes. Several places in Scripture address the believer's responsibility for meeting the needs of others. Foremost, Jesus says we should love our neighbor as ourselves. That principle is at the very core of meeting the needs of our brethren. Related, in 3 John 1-2, we find John praying that Gaius will "…prosper in every way and be in good health physically just as you are spiritually."
John is acknowledging Gaius's spiritual strength, but he also prays for his physical strength so that he can, in turn, meet the needs of the fellow brothers who were traveling and preaching the Word. And although the last section of the Olivet Discourse in Matthew 25 is referring to future times, it is clear that we are to minister to the needs of others—especially fellow believers, as though they were the Messiah himself. The beginning of verse 35 is particularly relevant, "For I was hungry and you gave Me something to eat; I was thirsty and you gave Me something to drink; I was a stranger and you took Me in..."
"Providing for the needs of the body lays the groundwork for rest and renewal of the mind, alleviating stress in your global workers’ reentry process."
Ronald L. Koteskey’s brief on maintaining mental and physical health for missionaries states three areas of need for global workers' physical health: eating well, proper rest, and exercise. These are ever-present needs, but they take on heightened importance upon reentry.
How can the local church meet these needs?
Fill the fridge
Your care team should be in consistent contact with their workers as they transition home. Be aware of where they are staying so you can prepare their abode before they arrive. Keep in mind that some returned workers will be coming from an area with dietary restrictions or limited access and availability to certain foods. Some will appreciate the freedom and choice, others will be overwhelmed by it, so get a list of what they would like and fill their pantry and fridge.
Thomas Kimber, in his article Healthy Reentry: The Shared Responsibility of Missionary Care, writes, “After twenty-five years serving overseas, one missionary family recalls walking into their home that had been completely stocked with food, cleaning supplies, paper products, along with cards, notes, and flowers from the congregation…They felt accepted, loved, and cared for the moment they arrived home.”
Find a Fitness Facility
If your church has a gym or fitness facility, perhaps associated with their school, investigate making it available to your returned workers. This can be an excellent resource for preventing the isolation and fatigue that often accompanies readjustment.
Reach out to your local YMCA or private clubs. Recruit the members of your congregation who have memberships that allow guests, and would be willing to accompany them as a workout buddy.
Provide your workers with a list of accessible walking trails, outdoor parks, and recreation areas. This small step will encourage them toward the process of reorientation and resetting their circadian rhythms.
Furnish a Medical Resources List
Many workers return with medical issues that need to be addressed. Having a list ready for them will go a long way in reducing their anxiety. Include medical professionals, Christian counseling centers, hospitals, urgent care locations, and pharmacies.
Seek out the wisdom and services of the medical professionals in your church community. Enlist their help in providing for your global workers.
Truly holistic care includes the body as well as the soul and spirit, and your care team can more effectively minister to the workers in your care if they address all aspects of reentry. Providing for the needs of the body lays the groundwork for rest and renewal of the mind, alleviating stress in your global workers’ reentry process.
“Work is a blessing. … He gives us hands and strength to do it. It is the joy of work well done that enables us to enjoy rest, just as it is the experiences of hunger and thirst that make food and drink such pleasures.” Elisabeth Elliott
Shirley Ralston (MA Christian Education, Dallas Theological Seminary) is a founding member of the Missionary Care Team at Houston’s First Baptist Church. She also serves on the pastor’s research team and teaches Life Bible Study to single young adults. Shirley and her husband Jeff now reside in Houston after several years living overseas. You can find her on Twitter and texpatfaith.org.